President's Baccalaureate Address 2005
May 20, 2005
Judson R. Shaver
Let me begin by congratulating the Marymount Manhattan College class of 2005, and by thanking the family and friends, faculty and staff, who have challenged you, inspired you, consoled, prodded, and sustained you, and who join us now to celebrate with you. You have persevered. You have achieved outstanding success, and this afternoon you will graduate. We are all very proud of you.
Hard at work as you've been finishing your last exams and papers, however, you may have missed the controversy surrounding you. While many of you told me how thrilled you are that Senator Clinton will give our commencement address, some of you, no doubt, are not friends of Hillary and would just as soon hear someone else. Although I didn't hear that from any of you, the Internet buzzed with criticism and my e-mail box overflowed. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Monitor all covered the story. At issue for our critics is Senator Clinton's position in the debate over abortion. How, I was asked could a college founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary invite this person to speak and honor her with a degree?
In asking this question, our critics reveal their fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of higher education as well as their lack of respect for you and the degrees you have earned. These critics assume that institutions can legitimately claim to be colleges even if they start with conclusions rather than questions, stifle debate, and protect students from supposedly wrong points of view and those who hold them. At this sort of non-college, critical thinking would not be the name of a required course, but rather a violation of the honor code. At such a place, faculty and staff would be expected to espouse without criticism some particular ideology. Genuine education might happen by accident, but indoctrination would be the goal. Such places exist, of course, but we are not one of them and they do not exemplify the best of higher education, either in America or the rest of the world.
What they do exemplify is the growing attraction of fundamentalisms of every type: Jewish, Christian, Islamic, the radical left and the radical right. Despite this variety of fundamentalisms, however, fundamentalists all share a distinguishing characteristic. They all claim, without reservation or doubt, divine or absolute authority for their own beliefs and commitments. They're right and everyone else is wrong. Case closed. No need to talk. Haul out the heavy weapons. Reinhold Niebuhr called this "absolutizing the relative," and regarded it as an insidious form of idolatry. Yet many people think fundamentalists are those who take faith or commitment seriously. They are mistaken. In fact, fundamentalists have little interest in faith. It is the acceptance of unquestionable certainties that they require. To take faith seriously, is to seek in humility to understand what passes understanding, to live in hope, in the absence of certitude and in the presence of doubt.
One of my favorite stories captures this perfectly. In the Gospel of Mark,
a man brings his sick son to Jesus and says, "if you can do anything,
have pity on us and help us." Jesus replies, "if you can! All things
are possible to him who believes." At this point the father cries out: (I believe, help my unbelief.)
Like the search for real faith, genuine education, in every discipline, challenges received wisdom, values inquiry and seeks relentlessly to develop a deeper and better understanding of its subject matter. While education thus produces knowledge, its primary product is a person who realizes the need and has the ability to be a lifelong learner. Sometimes this is frustrating, as when the scientific consensus inverts the food pyramid or physicists can't agree whether the universe is made of zippy little particles or tiny vibrating strings. Really distressing, for many people, is the lack of certitude in the humanities and social sciences on questions of ultimate meaning. A fundamentalist is conceived when this distress boils over and a person gives up the lifelong quest for meaning, understanding and knowledge characteristic of an educated person, stops thinking, and surrenders to the ideology of some authoritative group or individual.
As I've said, higher education around the globe is in principle opposed to such mindlessness. As, indeed, are Marymount Manhattan College and its founders. Distinguished by their deep understanding of education's value to both individual and society, their commitment to diversity and willingness to question authority, they created a college that served women and then men, too, Catholic students and then non-Catholics, also. Over time, we became a coeducational, non-sectarian liberal arts college.
We treasure our heritage and every member of our community. We celebrate a culture of intellectual inquiry and creative expression that is marked both by diversity and civility. We are committed to personal growth and to using our gifts, talents and education in the service of others. Optimistic about human potential and confident in our graduates' ability to exercise the responsibilities of educated people, we are proud to offer a rigorous education and to eschew indoctrination in any guise.
Our Mission Statement makes all this very clear. I'll read just a bit of it: "The mission of the College is to educate a socially and economically diverse population by fostering intellectual achievement and personal growth…. Inherent in this mission is the intent to develop an awareness of social, political, cultural and ethical issues, in the belief that this awareness will lead to concern for, participation in and improvement of society." Our mission is not to indoctrinate people to take predetermined positions on social, political, cultural or ethical issues, but to educate people like you who will have the concern and competence to wrestle with such issues with integrity and for the betterment of society, just as we do and as our founders have always done.
Which brings me back to Senator Clinton. We did not invite her because of-- or in spite of-- her political commitments. We are not fundamentalists for or against her. We are educators. We invited her because she is our senator and a woman of considerable intelligence and influence. We invited her because she is likely to say something worth our consideration, whether we agree with her or not. We invited her because we are a college.
Today we honor the hard work and achievements of the class of 2005. I know it has been a struggle, but I hope for at least this one happy day, the pressures and challenges of your lives will recede as you celebrate your graduation. Tomorrow will come soon enough, and you will face no shortage of issues. You will find few easy answers; you won't always be right. Life isn't easy; but it is great. And you're prepared for all it has to offer.
Congratulations and good luck, class of 2005!